By MARTY CLEAR
In Tampa, a friendly nun dressed people as farm animals. Across the bay, in St. Petersburg, a wry elf shared humiliating stories about his job.
The nun held court over a fake classroom at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Jaeb Theatre in something called Sister's Christmas Catechism, an odd show that consists mostly of improvised conversations with the audience.
The elf was an American Stage actor playing David Sedaris in The SantaLand Diaries, the wonderful humorist's reminiscence about his weeks as a Santa's helper at Macy's.
They're both one-person holiday shows, interesting alternatives at a time of year dominated by Nutcrackers and other familiar stage fare, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends.
Sister's Christmas Catechism, in fact, barely qualifies as a show at all. For the first hour, Sister (the only name she uses) mostly just addresses individual audience members, asking if they're good Catholics and sharing a couple of Bible stories.
Act 2 consists almost entirely of Sister dressing, very slowly, selected audience members as figures from the Nativity (three animals, Mary and Joseph, the Magi and a couple of others) and having them pose while their friends take pictures.
Then there's a brief epilogue in which Sister "solves" a "mystery" she has invented. (The gold the Magi brought has been stolen, she says.)
It's silly fun if you or one of your friends is picked to come onstage. Otherwise, you're watching strangers get dressed and stand still. It's painfully dull and seemingly endless, despite an amusing line or two and a decent performance by Kathleen Stefano.
The SantaLand Diaries offers an edgy, often cynical but occasionally warm-hearted look at Christmas.
Sedaris, at least according to his script, was desperate for work when he moved to New York at 33. The only job he could get was a seasonal one at Macy's, in which he was compelled to wear pointy ears and tights with horizontal stripes, and work alongside spitting Santas and puking children.
Brian Shea has long been one of the best actors on local stages, and he has seldom been better than he is here. He tempers Sedaris' sardonic words with a sense of wonder as he discovers what goes on behind the scenes at SantaLand.
Besides which, he's a total hoot to watch in his elfin garb, and Sedaris offers a nonstop stream of hilariously pointed observations and beautifully economical language.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at email@example.com.